Annora clung to the stones of the dungeon walls by her fingertips, heart thundering as she kicked out at her captors.
“Let go of me!” she shrieked to the two guards gripping her arms and dragging her down the stairs. “The Goddess as my witness, you’ll pay for this.”
Her frantic heart lunged against her ribs, desperate to escape confinement as her blood boiled in her veins. But it was hopeless. They pried her from the algae-slicked granite, lifted her legs from the stairs, and hauled her down into the dungeon. Down into the dark.
The chambermaid filled her lungs with fetid air and screamed, powerless against the guards. No matter how hard she fought and beat her fists against her captors, the dungeon swallowed her down. The light at the top of the stairs shrank smaller and smaller.
Regret and rot wept from the walls, the steady drip constant throughout the seasons; the stench as familiar to the prisoners of Caer Duloon as fresh air had once been.
Though Annora had never set foot this deep into the bowels of the castle, she knew that reek of decay well. It permeated the lower levels of the fortress where she and the other maids had spent most of their days, a grim reminder of what awaited them if they did not comply with their lord and master’s wishes. Now it was to be all she knew; the dark, the smell, the iron bars, and the prisoners.
“This’ll teach you to strike a nobleman,” one of the guards grunted as they reached the bottom of the staircase.
“He deserved to be struck,” she hissed back.
Finally, her feet touched the ground and she was allowed to stand upright, though her hands were pinned behind her back by one of the guards. The other glared at her.
In the dim light of the dungeon, his dark blue uniform appeared almost black. Torchlight flickered on his steel breastplate. He was lean and bald; tall, and hard-eyed. She knew him—not by name, of course—but they had passed each other in the corridor and muttered their good mornings more than once.
She refused to be intimidated by him. “You saw what Lord Caine did to that boy”
“Aye,” the guard said. “I saw what he did, and he had every right to do it. Lord Caine is a nobleman who gave a clumsy squire a crack around the ears for spilling his wine. It was over in a moment, until you intervened—”
“The squire was bleeding!”
“And now so is Lord Caine—in front of his party guests, no less.”
“I don’t give a shit—”
“And on his order, you’ll spend the rest of your life in a cell. Be thankful we’re not dragging you to the headsman.”
The final word rendered her silent. Every breath was like swallowing molten glass as the man leaned toward her and sliced the ties of her apron at her hips with a curved knife.
“Don’t want you cutting your own sentence short,” he growled, pulling the garment away and casting it aside.
“I wouldn’t give you the satisfaction.” Annora’s skin bristled in the cold, her full, curvaceous figure clad only in a plain, white wool dress, the tanned leather slippers on her feet barely keeping out the chill which seeped from the stone floor. Her honey blonde hair trailed in loose waves over her shoulders, pulled from her braid sometime during the fight.
Her captors’ teeth chattered as they stared her down, but Annora locked her lips together so they would not quiver, in case they mistook her shivers for frightened trembling. Instead, she turned her attention to the cells on the other side of the dungeon.
The few torches dotted around the walls cast dim light over their iron bars, though the fires were more for the benefit of the guards than to give any sort of cheer and warmth.
Lord Caine did not keep prisoners for long, and for now, that was a mercy. Most of the cells were empty, but for one. A large man sat with his back to them, so silent and still he could have been dead already and frozen stiff. His long black hair sat in tangled waves about his broad, slumped shoulders, which were shrouded in a filthy gray wolf pelt.
“Do I need to put you in irons, or will you get into the cell?” the guard asked, snapping Annora’s attention back to him.
Panic clawed at her chest, and the dungeon seemed to tilt as the hopelessness of the situation pressed down on her, suffocating, and snuffing the fight from her heart. She could not overpower the two of them; her struggle from the banquet hall to the cells had proven that.
But perhaps, if she earned their trust, she could outsmart them. Annora was approaching her fortieth spring, and had learned through years of servitude that sometimes it was better to comply and wait for the opportune moment.
“I’ll go to my cell,” she said as submissively as she could manage. “What other choice do I have?”
“None,” the guard said, before giving a curt nod to the man at her back. He stepped back, raking his gaze along the length of her body. “You know, if you smiled a bit more, perhaps the lord wouldn’t have been so harsh.”
Coiling her fists and clenching her jaw, she kept her eyes level with his and her expression neutral. She rarely smiled, and certainly not by request. She would sooner die than smile for a man holding her captive.
The second guard tired of her first and shoved her hard in the direction of the cells, past black iron shackles and chains which rattled in the breeze as she passed. She would not fall prey to them. If her hands were bound it would be hopeless, and she might never escape.
As she passed by the only occupied cell, the prisoner turned his head to watch her, and enough that she caught a glimpse of his face. He was not dead. Far from it.
Filth clung to him, embedded in every crease of his pale skin. His beard and hair were long and unkempt, his clothes tattered, and though he sat huddled beneath the wolf pelt he still shivered. But his piercing blue eyes shone even in the dungeon darkness. If not for the light in those eyes, Annora would have thought him broken by his captivity. But they were burning, mesmerizing, and the only sky she was guaranteed for a long time.
“We brought you a friend,” the guard at her back chuckled, nudging the bars of the man’s cage with the toe of his boot. “Bet it’s a long time since you saw a woman, eh?”
Dutifully the prisoner stood to his full height, towering half a head above the guards. He was a large man, solidly built and dressed in a tattered black wool tunic which stretched tight over the soft mound of his stomach.
“No,” the prisoner said, in a smooth, dark voice. Smoke and spiced honey. “You had a beggar woman in here not two weeks ago—”
“Quiet,” the guard growled. “Or it’ll be the pail for you again.”
It seemed impossible for the prisoner’s eyes to burn brighter, but he glowered at the guard as though he could melt the iron in the bars by touch alone. It was as though the cage surrounding him was merely a suggestion of captivity.
His large, strong hands curled to fists at his sides, and every muscle in Annora’s body tensed in response.
The man had not spoken one word to her and yet she knew without doubt he was dangerous. Instinct told her to stay away from him, yet curiosity pulled her closer. However long he had been left in the cell, it had not yet broken him, and that resilience could be useful. Besides, he was to be her only companion unless she found a way out.
“Why are you locking her away?” the captive asked. “Did she steal a turnip from a stall like the beggar?”
Annora turned her head to face him as the guard’s keys jangled in the lock in the empty cell opposite. “No. I hit Lord Caine.”
The prisoner’s lips pulled into a slow, confident grin which told her that beneath the grime and unkempt beard, was a man who knew how handsome he was. In the years before he was caged, it would have been a smile which stole hearts, a smile which would tempt anyone he wanted to follow him to his bed.
“Is he hurt?” he asked.
She found herself mirroring his mirth, at least internally. Outwardly she remained as stone-faced as ever. “Aye, I think his nose is broken. He was bleeding when they took me, but I didn’t get much time to be sure.”
“Shut up,” the guard growled, the clear threat of violence sharpening his voice.
The prisoner chuckled, flashing that disarming smile once more. “Excellent. May I ask your name?”
“Annora.” She had no idea why she was answering him, only that her lips would not allow silence.
Her name was silk on his tongue sending a shiver down her spine.
She did not allow her gaze to falter. “And yours?”
“Henry. Henry Percille. Tell me, Annora, did he cry?”
“Bring the pail,” the bald guard barked at the other. In an instant, the man was gone from sight, and the sound of sloshing water came from the back of the dungeon.
Calmly, Henry took a step toward the bars, wrapping his hands around them. He braced himself as the guard reappeared with an overflowing wooden bucket and handed it to the bald one. With a sneer, the man stepped back toward her cell, drew back the pail and flung water over the prisoner. Icy drops tingled against Annora’s forearms as Henry gasped and wiped his face.
Droplets fell from his hair and beard and ran like rivers over his burly frame. And Annora’s gaze traced each one, down over the hills and valleys of his body. She swallowed against the barricade in her throat.
“Yes, Caine cried,” she said. “He sobbed in front of all his dinner guests—” A pained gasp burst from her lips as a blunt force between her shoulder blades rammed her forward into the cell. Iron bars clanged shut behind her.
“Quiet, both of you, or I’ll have both of you frozen solid before the night is out,” the second guard snarled.
There was much Annora still wanted to say; why she hit Lord Caine, that she would do it again given half the chance, that she hoped the guards’ beds were filled with venomous spiders when they got home that night. But she needed them. If she was to escape, her best hope was to give her captors cause to trust her.
“Forgive me,” she said, loud enough for the retreating guards to hear. “Today has been…trying.”
“It can get a lot worse,” the bald guard warned before walking from sight.
Their boots clattered on the stairs as they ascended, and the heavy oak door groaned and slammed closed. Annora and the prisoner were alone.
The erratic drip of water somewhere in the dungeon filled the empty seconds. Annora fought her instinct to panic, breathing through the terror of confinement. It was temporary, nothing more than an inconvenience she told herself. She would be free before the night was out.
But the dungeon reeked of filth and decay, the suffocating air powdered with mold and already unbearable.
Her burgeoning panic stalled as Henry let out a gasping breath and pulled his black hair back behind his shoulders, squeezing out all the freezing water he could. He shivered as he lifted his dripping tunic over the top of his head, and stood in his cell naked from the waist up.
Though the tight tunic had done little to hide the shape of his figure, now he was without it she could map it faithfully. Pale sun-starved skin dusted with dark hair on his broad chest and round, softened stomach. Long scars covered every part of his torso, left no doubt by a whip or blade. Whoever this man was, he had known suffering.
Perhaps he even deserved it.
He was the largest man she had ever laid eyes on, strong and powerfully built, but fed well and left to sit idle in his small cell. The sight of him alone was enough to make her thighs clench.
“I can’t imagine how good it must have felt to hit that bastard,” Henry said as he wrung the water from his tunic and let it splash upon the stone floor. “I’d give anything for the chance.”
Chest aching, Annora sucked in a breath, realizing she had not drawn one since before he removed his tunic. “Aye, and I’d do it again—”
“Truly?” A low chuckle sounded in the opposite cell as Henry’s scarred shoulders shook. “Even knowing you would have to spend your life in a cell?”
“Aye, well…” She turned, glancing behind her at her new living quarters. Like her room upstairs, there was a simple cot for her to sleep upon, a chamber pot stashed beneath it, and little else. But at least her room upstairs had a threadbare rug on the stones to keep out some of the cold. Then again, her former neighbors were not quite so dangerously handsome. “The view’s nicer down here, at least.”
Henry paused a moment, his tunic twisted between his large hands as water droplets fell from the wool. He arched an eyebrow and continued his task.
Curiosity burned in Annora’s chest, desperate to break loose. Henry was not at all what she imagined when she first saw him sitting on the floor of his cell. She had expected a ruffian, all snarls and vulgarity, but Henry was altogether more quietly intimidating. If he was to be her only companion, she should know what sort of man he was.
She cleared her throat. “How long have you been down here?”
“Has midwinter come?”
“Just last week.”
His eyebrows lifted a moment in silent surprise. “Almost ten years. A third of my life.”
The answer chilled her blood. Ten years of darkness while the world above went on without him. Ten years without human contact save for the guards’ brutality. Forgotten, left in the dark while his fellow prisoners were dragged to the executioner. And yet, he outlived them all.
Whoever he was, he was worth keeping.
A fear prickled in the back of her mind, that perhaps he was a nobleman too; a leech, a parasite feeding off the labor of commoners. Prisoners were not cheap to hold, but Lord Caine had gone to great expense to keep this man not only alive, but well-fed.
“What did you do?” she asked.
“Hm,” Henry chuckled as he untwisted the black wool in his hands. “Should I list my crimes alphabetically, by date, or in order of severity?”
That made her chuckle. “Oh aye? Are you so terrible?”
“The very worst,” Henry said with a weary sigh, squeezing his damp tunic back over his body. It clung even tighter. “My crimes are far beyond hitting a lord.”
Annora’s breath caught. Yes, for the foreseeable future, she was to be locked in a cage, but at least she was locked away with a man who piqued her curiosity. She may as well be entertained while she thought out an escape plan. Crossing her cell, she sat on the edge of her cot. “Start at the beginning. Tell me everything.”